So what is a conifer tree, anyway? While this seems like a simple question, it has a complicated answer. Most of us have a vague idea; it’s like, a pine tree, right? Well, pines are conifers, but why? And what else is a conifer and is it always a tree? Always evergreen? Always green?
- Conifers are, most simply, plants that have cones. So yes, pine trees are conifers; we all know about pine cones!
However, some conifers, such a yews, have fleshy cone that look more like fruit. Here’s a photo: Yew ‘fruit’
Other conifers, such as cypress and junipers, have cones with fused scales that look more like berries than what we think of as cones. What all of these bodies have in common is that the actual seeds are ‘naked’ and not enclosed within fruits, as in the flowering plants.
- Are all conifers pine trees? No, there are spruce and fir and cypress and redwoods and dozens more. However, the pine family is the largest family within conifers, and both spruces and firs are members of the pine family (Pinaceae) so for most of us, many of the conifers with which we are most familiar, are pines!
- Are all conifers trees? We all know that classic, Christmas tree shape, and unfortunately conifers get tagged as boring because there is an idea that all conifers look like that. Did you know that conifers naturally occur in 10 completely different shapes, from tall and upright to weeping to flat and spreading? Conifer shapes
- All conifers are not evergreen! Ever heard of a bald cypress, the denizens of the Southern bayous? They got the nickname ‘bald’ because they lose their needles in the winter. So do larch and dawn redwood, but they are still conifers, because they bear cones.
- Not only are all conifers not evergreen, they are not all green! Colorado blue spruce is vividly blue, many other conifers are vibrant yellow or gold, and you can find colors ranging from silver and white through yellows and blues to purple, brown and reddish at different times of the year. Oh, and of course, green!
- So ok, we get it now, conifers are complicated, but they all have cones and we know that they all have needles instead of leaves, right? Well…sorry to make it even MORE complicated, but there are a few conifers that don’t have needles, they have leaves! Native to Australia, they don’t look anything like our idea of conifers. So what makes them conifers then? Remember the first bullet point: they bear cones!
Conifers, far from being boring, are one of the most exciting group of plants in the kingdom. While there are only around 800 conifers that occur in nature (as compared to perhaps 28,000 orchids), due to chance mutations and plant breeding, there are thousands of cultivars (short for ‘cultivated variety’) that are wonderful focal points and accents to the garden and landscape.
So add color, year-round interest, texture and structure to your garden by planting some dwarf conifers! join the American Conifer Society to learn more and to connect to a nationwide group of plant lovers!